The city of Pensacola was awarded a $500,000 grant for the preservation and restoration of the Alice S. Williams Library, the first library in the city serving African-American residents.
Located at 1015 N. E St., the building's history dates back to August 1952. Its namesake, Alice Strudivant Williams, was an esteemed local high school teacher committed to the education of Pensacola's Black youth.
City officials plan to use the grant — an African American Cultural and Historical Grant from the state of Florida — and an additional $200,000 raised from the Westside Community Redevelopment Agency to convert the building into a community gathering center, an event space and a resource center with historical markers and displays.
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The final plans for the space are still being developed, but Pensacola City Councilman Delarian Wiggins, who oversees the district where the building is located, wants to make sure the entire community can benefit from the space.
"I think it's most important to keep the historical content intact, and it's something that the community holds dear to their hearts," Wiggins said. "They utilized that library a lot of times, so we definitely want to keep it in our community and open it up for people in our community, to restore the value, to restore a lot of great things it was once used for. Now, we can actually start bringing some of those things back."
City of Pensacola staff submitted an African American Cultural and Historical Grant application to the Department of State in November 2021, were notified of receiving the grant in June 2022 and finalized the grant agreement in September 2022.
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said African-American residents in the community expressed an interest in retaining the property, noting its critical role as the only library available to them during segregation.
"I think it's important that we keep it because of its historic significance," Robinson said of preserving the building for future generations. "In one way or another, it will be a positive piece of the city's mission in that neighborhood, and we look to continue it."
Alice Williams, who lived from 1880 to 1941, received her degree for teaching in the 1920s, and in addition to her daytime teaching duties, she ran a night school for African Americans out of her home at night. She was named assistant principal of Washington High School in 1940.
In October 1945, a grassroots efforts began to name a library after Williams. It was propelled primarily by donations and volunteer labor by the Negro Parent Teacher Association at Washington High School, the designated African-American High School during this time of segregation.
The grand opening of the library was in August 1952, and the city of Pensacola agreed to fund operations and maintenance of the library.
After segregation was declared unconstitutional, the library was closed in 1976 and over the years, the building served many functions. It was most recently used as a day care center, but the building fell into disrepair when that business left six years ago.
Since then, the community has rallied to help save and restore the former library.
Jewel Cannada-Wynn, a long-serving former member of the Pensacola City Council, wants to make sure the building is used for educational purposes and has historical memorabilia. She said she will do whatever it takes to continue fundraising and partnering with other agencies to make sure the building will be properly utilized for and by the community.
"It was the only place that African Americans could have a library during the beginning of the '50s. That's where we went and that's where all of the socialization, education and reading went on for the African American community, and so we wanted to make sure that we kept it as a historical designation," Cannada-Wynn said. "It has been a day care center and other things throughout the year, but mainly it was a library and everybody went to that library. It's dear to our community and important to our community for the history."
Approval of the grant agreement is the agenda for the Monday City Council Agenda Conference and will be voted on at the Thursday City Council Meeting.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Grant awarded to restore Alice S. Williams Library in Pensacola